Health costs of coal plants

From Global Energy Monitor

United States

A 2010 report from the Clean Air Task Force, The Toll From Coal found that, in the United States, particle pollution from existing coal power plants is expected to cause some 13,200 premature deaths in 2010, as well as 9,700 additional hospitalizations and some 20,000 heart attacks.[1]

Estimated mortality figures for 2010 have Pennsylvania leading the nation with 1359 people likely killed, 1016 people admitted to the hospital, and 2,298 additional heart attacks. Ohio comes in second with 1,221 additional premature deaths; New York takes third with 945 dead from coal pollution. Per capita, the figures change slightly: West Virginia is first in the nation, with an estimated 14.7 people per 100,000 adults killed by coal pollution. Pennsylvania and Ohio tie for second, with 13.9; Kentucky comes in third at 12.6.[1]

The report found that the total monetized value of these adverse health impacts add up to more than $100 billion per year. This burden is not distributed evenly across the population. Adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease. In addition, the poor, minority groups, and people who live in areas downwind of multiple power plants are likely to be disproportionately exposed to the health risks and costs of fine particle pollution.[1]

In the last version of this study, done in 2004, it was estimated that coal pollution would caused about 24,000 premature deaths annually. The authors cited EPA action in 2005 under the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) as resulting in the declining mortality figures. Though CAIR was struck down in Federal court in 2008, the pollution reduction requirements remain in effect until a replacement is established. In making their projects, the report authors assume similarly stringent requirements will be in place for the remainder of 2010.[1]

Even with much decreased numbers, the report says sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal power plants will "continue to take a significant toll on the health and longevity of millions of Americans." Overall, the report says "among all industrial sources of air pollution, none poses greater risks to human health and the environment than coal-fired power plants."[1]


The 2009 study, Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost, by West Virginia University professor Michael Hendryx and Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, reports that coal mining in Appalachia costs five times more in premature deaths than the industry provides in jobs, taxes, and other economic benefits. Hendryx and Ahern compared age-adjusted mortality rates and socioeconomic conditions across Appalachian counties with varying amounts of coal mining, and with other counties in the nation. They converted the mortality figures to the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) estimates, and then compared that to accepted numbers for the economic benefits of the coal industry. Using these methods, the study found that the coal industry creates about $8 billion per year in economic benefits for the Appalachia region, but even using conservative estimates, the cost of premature deaths attributable to coal mining is valued at approximately $42 billion. The authors recommend that politicians seek other means for improving the economy and quality of life of Appalachia, in such areas as renewable energy, sustainable timber, small-scale agriculture, and ecosystem restoration. The study is published in the July-August 2009 issue of Public Health Reports, the peer-reviewed journal of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Public Health Service.[2]


Chicago's Fisk and Crawford Plants

On October 20, 2010, the Environmental Law and Policy Center released a study, ELPC Report Finds Chicago Coal Plants Caused Up To $1 Billion in Health Damages Since 2002 showing Midwest Generation's Crawford and Fisk coal plants in Pilsen and Little Village may have caused between $750 million and $1 billion in public health related damages since 2002. The plants operate on equipment built between 1958 and 1961 and skirt Federal Clean Air Act regulations since they were built before 1976. The report uses data culled from various sources such as a 2010 National Research Council study and the Harvard School of Public Health’s Illinois Power Plant Study.[3]

According to the study, the plants cause more than $127 million in 2010 dollars in health damages yearly, based on 2005 emissions. Particulate matter released into the air causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, heart attacks, premature death and more. A spokeswoman for Midwest Generation told WBEZ that there is no tie between the plants and public health, putting the blame on traffic instead. The ELPC supports the Chicago Clean Power ordinance, which would require Midwest Generation to reduce PM pollution within 4 years. Howard Learner, executive director for the ELPC, said via press release “Soot and smog from Chicago coal plants is making us sick and costing us millions. Cleaning them up is the right thing to do for our health, our environment and our economy.”[3]

Waukegan Plant

According to a 2010 report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), "Midwest Generation’s “Unpaid Health Bills”: The Hidden Public Costs of Soot and Smog From the Waukegan Coal Plant in Illinois Total $520 - $690 Million Since 2002" pollution from Midwest Generation’s Waukegan Generating Station has caused between $520 million and $690 million in public health damages since 2002. The Waukegan coal plant is located on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Northeastern Illinois, about 40 miles north of Chicago and 50 miles south of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More than 67,000 people live within three miles of the plant. The plant still operates using equipment built between 1958 and 1963, and Midwest Generation, the plant’s owner, has not installed modern pollution controls such as scrubbers. The report uses data from the National Research Council finding that particulate matter (soot), from the Waukegan coal plant creates about $86 million in health and related damages annually.[4]

ELPC’s report examines recent scientific research on the health effects of soot and smog pollution from coal plants. Numerous authoritative scientific panels have found that particulate matter pollution from coal plants harms public health, causing various health detriments including premature death, heart attacks, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The personal hardship and economic impact of these health problems is borne by the public. In 2006, after a public advocacy campaign by ELPC and other health and environmental and children’s advocacy groups, the Illinois Pollution Control Board ordered Midwest Generation to reduce toxic mercury emissions at Waukegan and other coal plants in Northern Illinois. A related order requires Midwest Generation to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution at the Waukegan coal plant by the end of 2014.[4]

Indiana's State Line Plant (near Chicago)

According to a 2010 report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), "Dominion Resources’ 'Unpaid Health Bills': The Hidden Public Costs of Soot and Smog From the State Line Coal Plant on the Chicago-Northwest Indiana Border and on the Shore of Lake Michigan Total: $540 - $720 Million Since 2002", pollution from Dominion's State Line Plant on the Illinois-Indiana border and along the Lake Michigan shores has caused up to $720 million in health and related damages in the last 8 years. The report uses data from the National Research Council finding that particulate matter (soot) from the State Line coal plant creates about $77 million in health and related damages annually which are imposed on the public. Overall, this coal plant has created an estimated $540 million to $720 million in public health damages and costs since 2002.[4]

The State Line coal plant is located on the Illinois/Indiana border, just 13 miles from downtown Chicago and along the Lake Michigan shoreline. About 78,000 people live within three miles of the plant. The plant continues to operate with much equipment built between 1955 and 1962, as Dominion Resources, the plant owner, has not installed modern pollution controls such as scrubbers. ELPC’s report examines recent scientific research on the health effects of soot and smog pollution from coal plants. Numerous authoritative scientific panels have found that particulate matter pollution from coal plants harms public health, causing various health detriments including premature death, heart attacks, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease, the personal and economic hardships of which are borne by the public.[4]

The report adds new information to the debate on how coal plants in Illinois and Indiana should be operated and regulated. U.S. EPA initiated an enforcement action against the State Line coal plant in 2009, citing 4,770 minutes of opacity (“soot and smoke”) violations between 2004 and 2008. In September 2010, ELPC and other health and environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue Dominion Resources for repeatedly violating the amount of soot and smoke the plant is allowed to emit under the Clean Air Act.[4]


A study released in 2010 by the Iowa Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility described the health impacts of coal combustion in Iowa as follows:[5]

Ninety-two percent of Iowans live within 30 miles of a coal plant, and almost one out of three Iowa children attend school in close proximity to a coal plant. Additionally, Iowa is home to several of the oldest, least efficient and most polluting coal burning power plants in the nation, those grandfathered and exempted from stricter emissions limits after passage of the Clean Air Act in 1977. This means that not only does Iowa have more power plants per capita than almost all states, but many of Iowa’s power plants emit relatively more pollution per unit of energy produced because of their age. Finally, Iowa also disposes a disproportionate amount of coal combustion waste. Numerous toxic substances naturally found in coal are concentrated in such waste. Iowa has lax regulations on coal combustion waste disposal and allows waste from other states to be brought into Iowa for disposal. Thus Iowa absorbs the waste from its own plants as well as that produced elsewhere despite the potential health and environmental impacts of the many toxic substances involved.

Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping software, the study examined the distribution of pollutant emissions and specific health impacts including asthma, COPD, acute resperatory infections, eschemic heart disease, stroke, respiratory cancer, and diabetes. The study concluded:[5]

Utilizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s Co‑Benefits Risk Assessment (COBRA) Screening Model, it is estimated that reducing the level of emissions in Iowa to that found on average in most states would save the state $71,785,903 on health expenditures annually. Most of the savings are due to the reduction in premature mortality from reduced exposure to fine particulate matter. Reduction in chronic illnesses, chronic bronchitis and non‑fatal heart attacks, account for a savings of $4,756,373 or 6.6% of the total. The rest of the savings on health outcomes in this scenario are found in reductions in infant mortality, respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, acute bronchitis, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma emergency room visits, minor restricted activity days and lost work days.


In October 2010, the study "Energy Externalities and Co-benefits in Utah," commissioned by Utah state agencies, reported that air pollution leads to 202 premature deaths per year, 154 hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses per year, and 175 asthma-related emergency room visits per year, regionally. A group of Utah doctors, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, cite the report in urging Gov. Gary Herbert to factor in the external costs of coal-fired power in the state's energy policy. Utah commissioned the study, and Massachusetts-based Synapse Energy Economics Inc. itemized the health (and water) costs of Utah's reliance on coal-fired power plants. The estimated social costs total $1.6 to $2 billion annually, translating to $36 to $43 per MWh. The report says Utah should replace its most polluting coal plants with wind power and solar power and find ways to conserve energy.[6]


Overall health impacts of coal

A Feb. 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, "Estimating the Global Public Health Implications of Electricity and Coal Consumption" assessed the relationship between electricity use, coal consumption and health outcomes. The researchers used models to examine 40 years of data from 41 countries on infant mortality (IM), life expectancy (LE), electricity use, and coal consumption. They found that increased electricity consumption is associated with reduced IM for countries that started with relatively high IM (>100 /1000 live births) and low LE (<57 years) in 1965. In other words, increased electricity use decreased infant mortality in countries where IM rates were high and life expectancy low in 1965. LE was not significantly associated with electricity consumption regardless of IM and LE in 1965. Increasing coal consumption, however, was associated with increased IM and reduced LE after accounting for electricity consumption. The authors state that the results are consistent with previously published estimates of disease burdens attributable to energy-related environmental factors including indoor and outdoor air pollution, and water and sanitation problems.

The authors conclude that increased electricity consumption in countries with high IM rates (< 100/1000 live births) does not lead to greater health benefits, while coal consumption has significant detrimental health impacts.[7]

Estimated cost of air pollution in Europe

A 2011 analysis by the European Environment Agency (EEA), 'Revealing the costs of air pollution from industrial facilities in Europe,' estimates that air pollution from industry costs Britain £3.4bn-£9.5bn a year in health and environmental damage. When CO2 costs are included, the figure rises to £9.5bn-£15.5bn. The industrial facilities covered by the analysis include large power plants, refineries, manufacturing combustion and industrial processes, waste and certain agricultural activities. Emissions from power plants contributed the largest share of the damage costs (estimated at €66–112 billion). Other significant contributions to the overall damage costs came from production processes (€23–28 billion) and manufacturing combustion (€8–21 billion). Sectors excluded from the EEA analysis include transport, households and most agicultural activities – if these were included the cost of pollution would be even higher.

A small number of individual facilities cause the majority of damage costs. Three quarters of the total damage costs were caused by the emissions from just 622 industrial facilities – 6 % of the total number. The facilities with emissions associated with a high damage cost are in most cases some of the largest facilities in Europe which release the greatest amount of pollutants. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contribute the most to the overall damage costs, approximately €63 billion in 2009. Other air pollutants, which contribute to acid rain and can cause respiratory problems - sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3), particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) - were found to cause €38-105 billion of damage a year.[8]

Articles and Resources


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Matthew McDermott, "Coal Pollution Will Kill 13,200 Americans This Year & Cost $100 Billion in Additional Health Care Bills" Treehugger, Sep. 13, 2010.
  2. Ken Ward Jr, "Coal's costs outweigh benefits, WVU study finds," Charleston Gazette, June 20, 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Study Says Coal Plants Cost Chicagoans Millions In Health Damages" Chicagoist, Oct. 20, 2010.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "Report Finds Midwest Generation’s Waukegan Coal Plant Caused Up To $690 Million in Health Damages Since 2002" Environmental Law & Policy Center, Nov. 16, 2010. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "elpc" defined multiple times with different content
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Iowa Coal and Health: A Preliminary Mapping Study," Iowa Chapter, Physicians for Social Responsibility, 2010
  6. "Report commissioned by state agencies details cost of Utah's reliance on coal-fired power" CB Online, Oct. 19, 2010.
  7. Julia M. Gohlke, Reuben Thomas, Alistair Woodward, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, A. Prüss-Ustün, Simon Hales, and Christopher J. Portier, Estimating the Global Public Health Implications of Electricity and Coal Consumption Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 2011.
  8. "Industrial air pollution cost Europe up to €169 billion in 2009, EEA reveals" European environment agency, Nov 24, 2011.

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